Why Water Shortage Does Not Spell Disaster for City

by Lisa McChristian
       Water, water everywhere but not a drop for washing your car or hosing off your sidewalk. Until the State’s water restrictions are lifted, everyone must limit water consumption, whether served by a public water system or private wells.

      Though the drought is severe, and there have been three straight years of reduced rainfall in the region, Baltimore’s water system, which serves 1.8 million people, is in no danger of collapsing. “We have a shortage over what we’d like to have,” said Kurt Kocher, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works. “But we’re not in danger.”

      Recent rainfall has eased the problem, but hasn’t been enough to lift restrictions.

      Because City water officials plan ahead for emergencies like the drought, there’s a reserve fund of about $5 million to cover contingencies and catastrophes, according to Broughton Reid, DPW’s fiscal supervisor.

      According to Mr. Kocher, current additional costs for the drought emergency are estimated at $140,000, as payment to PEPCO for use of water from the Susquehanna River and for processing costs. Though revenues from water use will be less during the restriction period--reduced consumption means lower billings for water--Mr. Kocher assured that Baltimoreans will not be facing a rate increase to make up for lower demand or increased costs. He pointed out that the multi-million-dollar repair of the huge sinkhole at Franklin Street and Park Avenue was covered by the contingency fund, with no increase in water rates.

      “Baltimore residential water rates are the least expensive on the East Coast,” said Mr. Kocher. The City's industrial water rates are the lowest in the U.S., followed by Chicago. Reasons for these lower costs include a more compact and efficient infrastructure that is already in place and paid for, and fewer expenses related to new development.

      There’s a widespread myth that water and sewer charges are higher in Baltimore City than in surrounding subdivisions. The reverse is true, according to Mr. Reid. “The City rates are much lower,” he maintained. “In the County, the water bill might seem much lower, but it’s only one of five components people have to pay for. The other four appear on real estate tax bills as ‘metropolitan charges’.”

      These charges include an annual fee for a “connection charge,” a “water benefit charge” and a “sewer benefit charge” based on property frontage, and a “sewer service charge.”

      When all these costs are added on, he said, a family of four in Baltimore County is actually paying $639 annually for water and sewer, compared with a comparable City family using the same amount of service, whose expense is only $394.

      The costs in Anne Arundel County amount to $630 for that hypothetical family--unless they’re connected to the City system, in which case their costs are $505. The typical Carroll County family is paying $720, while in Harford County they’d be paying $613. Howard County families’ costs are $439.

      Costs in suburban Washington, DC, by comparison, are $845; D.C. residents pay $638.

      The City’s Department of Public Works is responsible for the City-owned Loch Raven, Liberty, and Prettyboy reservoirs along with the Ashburton and Montebello I and II filtration plants. Together, they can produce a total of 480 million gallons of treated water daily. Currently the City is drawing 100,000,000 gallons a day from the Susquehanna River north of the Conowingo Dam. The water is piped 38 miles to the Montebello filtration plants, where it is being mixed with water from Loch Raven and Prettyboy Reservoirs.

      Baltimore City gets paid by surrounding Counties whose residents use City water. There are meters on City pipes connecting to the counties. According to Mr. Kocher, the City shares pipe maintenance responsibilities with the counties. “The City goes out to fix broken water mains,” he said, “but the county is responsible for cleaning and re-lining the pipes.”

      Developers of projects requiring public water and sewer hookups are assessed permitting fees to cover infrastructure costs. These fees are typically passed on to buyers and users of the new construction. “We have long-range planning to assess future needs. We know how much our pumping stations are capable of doing,” said Mr. Kocher. “We’re partners in this, and we work together.”

      It’s easier to deal with the newer utility infrastructure in the counties because it can be mapped out using a Geographic Information System (GIS). The City’s network of pipes was put down a century ago, and is not amenable to such mapping.

      The long-range picture of the region’s water supply looks good, but in the short term, citizens, as Mr. Kocher says, “have to use common sense” in their water consumption.

      And they are. As of August 25, the limitations have brought about a 12 percent reduction in water use in the Baltimore metro area. The compliance, of course, may be due in part to fear of being caught wasting water. Enforcement, assigned to the Department of Public Works, occupies the days of 25 sanitation officers whose usual duties involve investigating illegal trash dumping.

       The water shortage affects some more than others. Plant nurseries and landscapers must reduce water use by 10%, while Maryland’s 185 golf courses have been directed to reduce their water use by 80 percent, despite pleas for a 10 percent reduction.

       The Maryland Turfgrass Association and the National Spa and Pool Institute are also campaigning to have water restrictions eased.

       The water restrictions have also affected the Camden Yards and Ravens stadiums. The playing fields for both teams must meet standards held by Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Further, the concrete in the stadiums is usually pressure-washed after each game because spilled food poses health hazards. In an effort to comply with the water-use curb, Camden Yards has agreed to cut back from washing half the stadium after every game to just one quarter of it. The acres of flowers, shrubs, and grass surrounding both stadiums are being sprinkled only with treated waste-water from the Back River treatment plant.

       Public concern has eased somewhat since the first week of restrictions, when the state’s drought hot line, 410-396-5352, averaged 200 calls an hour. The calls ranged from a six-year-old asking if the water-use curb meant he didn’t have to take a bath to a man warning that his neighbor didn’t like him and would probably be calling to report him even though he was observing the ban.

      Now rain has begun returning, and the hurricane season is upon us. The public has adjusted to using less water, and there may be long-term water conservation benefits from these behavior changes.

       Meanwhile, for more information on water-use restrictions, call 877-4-DROUGHT or visit the state’s Web site at

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This story was published on September 1, 1999.